How did Wales care for 4,500 Belgian refugees during WW1?

Department of International Politics Building

Department of International Politics Building

16 February 2016

The David Davies Memorial Institute at the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University is hosting a public lecture on the Welsh response to the Belgian Refugee Crisis of World War 1 on Wednesday 17th February.

Jointly hosted with Wales for Peace, the lecture takes place at 6pm in the Main Hall of the International Politics Department.

The guest speaker, UCL lecturer Christophe Declercq, has researched the Belgian refugees story for over a decade and is the UK liaison officer for a project currently organized by the Amsab Institute of Social History, affiliated to the University of Ghent, Belgium. 

He said: "Reflecting on the past to illuminate the present is what history is all about. This Belgian-Wales sharing of information will enhance our understanding of the Belgian Refugees' story during WW1, in the context of a new refugee crisis emerging in Europe a 100 years later. I was very pleased to respond to this opportunity to share my research through the Wales for Peace project, at Aberystwyth University’s International Politics Department."

Over 4,500 Belgian refugees came to Wales during WW1, leaving again by 1919 with very little trace, apart from art, craft and building work still valued in Wales today. These include the rood screen carving at Llanwenog church, the Belgian Pier in Menai Bridge and of greatest national significance, the intricately carved ‘Black Chair’ of the 1917 National Eisteddfod which was awarded posthumously to Hedd Wyn who died at Passchendaele.

Declercq explained the background: “The sojourn in Britain of about a quarter of a million Belgians has long been overlooked. The reasons for this are many. Most importantly, the Belgians came as imperceptibly as they went. By mid-1919 virtually all had returned to Belgium. They first arrived when Germany invaded Belgium on 4th August 1914 and Britain declared war on Germany. The following weeks, fierce fighting across Belgian territory created a mass movement of civilians, which came to a halt with the fall of Ostend (15 October) and the First Battle of Ypres (19 October – 22 November). In fact, in the early autumn of 1914 nearly one in three Belgians sought refuge from the war.”

Head of Wales for Peace project Craig Owen added: “An exciting part of the Wales for Peace project is mapping out the impact of war and collecting the peace heritage of Wales. With the help of volunteers and in partnership with the university and People’s Collection Wales, we are interested in uncovering local hidden histories and archives relating to the Welsh-Belgian experience during WW1. Christophe Declercq’s contribution, with this Belgian research project, provides an opportunity to extend the partnership to share discoveries digitally, to inform future actions relating to the reception of refugees, and to strengthen Wales-Belgium links.”

Remembering for Peace Exhibition and Lectures

The Public Lecture coincides with the Wales for Peace “Remembering for Peace” Exhibition at the National Library of Wales Aberystwyth, until 16th of April. Further Wednesday Public Lectures are scheduled, the next on the Conscientious Objectors of Wales in WW1 will be delivered at the International Politics Department by Aled Eurig at 4:30pm on the 2nd of March 2016, a century after the Military Service Act came into effect.

The final lecture will be held at 2pm on 16th of March at the Morlan, Aberystwyth by Rupert Gude on the subject of Opposition to the First World War in the British context.

Wales for Peace is a four-year project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and supported by 10 organisational partners including Aberystwyth and Cardiff universities, the National Library for Wales and movements such as the Urdd and Cymdeithas y Cymod. The project’s core question is: in the hundred years since the First World War, how has Wales contributed to the search for peace? Wales for Peace is a heritage project working with communities across Wales; it is also forward-looking in stimulating debate around issues of peace for the benefit of future generations.